Wellington Scoop

KiwiRail’s ‘kiss of death” for electrification of main trunk line

Media release
“KiwiRail’s decision to switch from electric to diesel locomotives on the North Island Main Trunk (NIMT) from Te Rapa to Palmerston North could be the ‘kiss of death’ for long-term transition to a fully electrified NIMT.”

That is the opinion of four electrical and civil engineering and environmental experts: Dr Roger Blakeley, Bob Norman, Alex Gray and Keith Flinders. They were responding to a report on Radio NZ on Thursday that, in a briefing to Ministers on 21 March, KiwiRail said it is continuing its work to decommission the electric locomotives fleet by April next year.

The KiwiRail decision to switch from electric to diesel locomotives on the NIMT involves retaining the electrified infrastructure required for electric trains on the NIMT, and keeping the lines maintained, inspected and energised, at an estimated cost of $2m-3m per year. This funding could be at risk from future budget cuts, which could jeopardise any future opportunity to electrify the whole NIMT.

KiwiRail continues to ignore the financial and environmental benefits of electric locomotives on the NIMT by proposing to switch from electric locomotives to polluting diesel locomotives.

There are three key issues in KiwiRail’s advice to the Minister of Transport, as reported by Radio NZ on Thursday, that are not correct:

1. Costs of Diesel v Electric Locomotives.

KiwiRail advised the Minister that diesel locomotives are lower cost than electric locomotives.

The facts are that while diesel locomotives have lower capital costs, they have higher operating and maintenance costs, and only half the service life of electric locomotives. The ‘whole-of-life’ costs of new electric locomotives are less than new diesel locomotives.

2. Reliability and Time performance

KiwiRail advised the Minister that the current locomotive switches from diesel to electric locomotives and back again at Te Rapa and Palmerston North affects the reliability and time performance of KiwiRail’s services, and reduces the attractiveness of rail as a freight option compared with road.

The facts are that KiwiRail conducted trials in July 2016, which found that the average delay at each location due to switching locomotives was only 5 minutes, not the 40 minutes scheduled. That delay is negated by the faster speed of electric locomotives on the electrified section of the NIMT, which makes up 10 to 20 minutes. Therefore, the decision to switch from electric locomotives to diesels cannot be justified on time saving grounds.

3. Greenhouse gas emissions

KiwiRail advised the Minister that a shift from electric to diesel locomotives would provide a more consistent and reliable service for modal shift onto rail: “For every tonne of freight moved by rail there is a 66% carbon emissions saving over heavy road freight”.

The facts are that the same reliability, efficiency, reduction in travel time and corresponding mode-share shift would be achieved by new or refurbished electric locomotives or dual-mode electric-diesel locomotives travelling between Auckland and Wellington.

KiwiRail will burn an extra eight million litres of diesel per year using diesel locomotives on the electrified section of the NIMT. This is in direct conflict with the Government’s target of reducing to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Govt promise off the rails, says union

Read also:
Kiwirail’s incorrect advice to Govt. Background on why KiwiRail’s claims for a switch from electric to diesel locomotives from Te Rapa to Palmerston North do not stack up on cost, time performance and greenhouse gas emission reduction grounds. Also why this could jeopardise any future opportunity to electrify the whole NIMT.


  1. Geoff Blackmore, 14. May 2018, 6:24

    The points they make are all incorrect.

    1) “That diesel locomotives have a higher operating cost.”

    This is true of the locomotive, but not the infrastructure. With diesels, you only need to maintain the track and track infrastructure. With electrics, you need to maintain the track and track infrastructure, but also the electricity infrastructure, including substations. This requires duplicate resources and duplicate staff. Diesels are considerably cheaper when you factor this in.

    2) “That it only takes 5 minutes to excahnge locomotives.”

    This is not the issue. The issue is the significant overlap in locomotive hours at Hamilton and Palmerston North. Each diesel and electric locomotive spends around four hours there during each exchange. The end result is that it takes around 24 locomotive hours to move a train from Auckland to Wellington, vs 16 locomotive hours with one diesel locomotive all the way from Auckland to Wellington. It therefore takes far fewer locomotives to do the same job, if the line is fully dieselised.

    3) “KiwiRail will burn an extra eight million litres of diesel per year using diesel locomotives”

    The additional cost of continuing with the inefficient operating structure of electrification is an opportunity cost. If the money was otherwise spent on new rolling stock, new freight facilities and better track, it would achieve greater modal shift of freight from diesel trucks, to diesel trains. Since diesel trains use five times less diesel than diesel trucks for any given task, this is where the environmental benefits of less diesel use comes into play. Put simply, diesel trains are at least as good for the environment as electric trains. But the added benefit is that fewer trucks will be on the roads, delivering other benefits as well, such as safer roads.

    It is time to remove the ideological blinkers and let KiwiRail get on with running their freight business in the way that is most economical, and ultimetaly, better for the environment and road users.

    As an aside, the dieselisation project is almost complete. 80% of trains within the electrified section are now hauled by diesels, and the few electric trains that still operate are breaking down on a near daily basis. It is time to retire them, and move on.

  2. Jonny Utzone, 14. May 2018, 11:59

    @Geoff searches for economic rationality and ends up, like Kiwi Rail, with diesel and abandonment of electric rail freight!

    Opportunity cost gets a run-out. Well how about the $6 billion being earmarked to reintroduce trams into Auckland Geoff? Where is the logic there? I’d guess you’d say nil when AT’s estimates show LRT operating costs to be higher than buses and that’s after spending ludicrous amounts of money to dig up the roads to lay 20cm of concrete track. And it won’t even be rapid – predicted to run at the same speed as the Airport bus.

    Surely spending some, if not all the $6 billion, to (1) extend electrification from Wellington to Palmerston North and from Hamilton to Pukekohe (and do the rest of the golden triangle i.e. AKL-TAU & HAM-TAU), (2) rehabilitate and upgrade the existing electric line and (3) buy a fleet of new electric locos has more economic and environmental rationale for NZ than two 20+ km LRT corridors in AKL?

    But there are few votes in electric rail freight whereas Labour is betting suburban AKL voters will notice the shiny new Light Rail snaking along Auckland streets (that’s after complaining about disruption for 2-3 years).

    If they were any good, Kiwi Rail’s senior executives would have had a convincing Business Case calling for the 100% electric option and seeking NZ and overseas Super Funds, at low borrowing rates, to finance it. Sack the lot of em!

  3. Boaz, 14. May 2018, 15:12

    The same Labour Party person who kicked the trolleybuses in the guts, Phil Twyford, is involved in the process. It is the Wellington trolleybus process all over again. The suggestion that KiwiRail has a lot of work to catch up on the infrastructure department and only a limited amount of money exposes the Labour Party as having no interest in fulfilling promises about investing in railways. Both the Greens and NZ First also talked of greater investment in rail but again, now in Government, have no intention of delivering. Junking Electric traction systems is completely the opposite of the Government’s own environmental policy and goals.

  4. Roger Blakeley, 14. May 2018, 16:33

    Reply to Geoff Blackmore. In response to your three points:

    1. Infrastructure costs associated with the electric overhead are very small. KiwiRail spends about $1.6m per year on NIMT overhead maintenance. The biggest costs are actually grid connection fees at $2m per year. Electricity is a much cheaper fuel than diesel, typically about a third the price. Total overhead costs are typically around $5-6m per year, which is lower than the cost of 8 million litres of diesel! If freight volumes increase, the electric locos get much cheaper as their $3.5m worth of fixed costs doesn’t increase.

    2. Costs are a function of kilometres travelled not “locomotive hours”. It costs KiwiRail nothing to have locomotives sitting around all day. Undeniably it’s not an efficient use of capital – but on assets that KiwiRail already owns such as the electric fleet, there is no cost to sitting around. Even without the electric locomotives, the diesels will have long layover times. The majority of NIMT operations run overnight so locomotives sit around doing nothing in the day. Just look at the Wellington rail yards during the day! It’s a rail-fan paradise.

    The issue of locomotives sitting around at Te Rapa and Palmerston North is an argument for dual-mode electric-diesel locomotives, which would automatically switch mode as they pass through Te Rapa and Palmerston North. Or it is an argument for full electrification of the NIMT!

    3. Leaked internal and external reports both concluded that the “idealogical blinkers” were in favour of the diesel option. The internal report concluded that refurbishing the electrics was $230m cheaper over 30 years than running diesels. The external report by WorleyParsons noted that the board papers were “biased towards the diesel option”.

    It is a fallacious argument to say that diesel trains would use five times less diesel than diesel trucks for any given task. New or refurbished electric trains would achieve the same mode share shift from road to rail freight as new diesel locomotives. In fact, electric trains would use a greater mulitple than five times less than diesel trucks, because you don’t have to add in the 8 million litres of diesel that would be burned by diesel locos on the electrified section of the NIMT. It is nonsense to say “diesel trains are at least as good for the environment as electric trains”!

    And the reason that 2 of the 17 electric fleet locomotives are parked is because of deferred repairs and maintenance by KiwiRail. It would cost only $12m to refurbish the electric fleet to extend the service life by over 20 years, compared with more than $35m for new diesel locomotives. Refurbishment of the existing electric fleet would be the lowest cost and best value for money of the options for the electrified section of the NIMT. It would also have the advantage of retaining the opportunity for long-term transition a fully electrified NIMT.

  5. Steve Brown, 14. May 2018, 16:55

    Mr Blackmore propagates the lies being used by the National Party to condemn electrification. All the warning signals are out there: cut reliance on fuel that comes out of a hole in the ground, unless you are intent on doing nothing but make profits. A fact that appears to have been overlooked by Mr Blackmore is that Electrics, over their life cycle, cost approximately 50% that of the equivalent Diesel-powered locomotives, and that includes all the infrastructure.

    Given that the existing electric locomotives have done over 3 million kilometres each without being overhauled, it is not strange that they break down from time to time, not daily as he tries to suggest. Incidentally, if the equivalent Diesel locomotives have received 3 complete overhauls in that 3 million kilometres, the cost of those overhauls would have paid for a new electric loco. The average life of diesels appears to be around 30 years, whilst electrics last 50 years and longer. Electric locos are full of electronics and motors, not expensive engines that wear themselves out.

    Mr Blackmore should admit that the dieselisation is nowhere near complete, except for the current phase.

    As for the ideology, I see no problem in preventing pollution to our atmosphere and the lessening of profits. Profit driven ethos is what has driven mankind to wrecking the planet we all live on.

  6. JV, 14. May 2018, 19:08

    The same business case is being pushed forward to rid the new interisland ferries of having rail decks; that being the case, why bother having interisland rail freight, just truck it seems like internal self destruction by a ship of fools.

  7. Casey, 15. May 2018, 15:47

    It seems to me that KiwiRail is run by those with the logic of accountants, and who are blind to the wider picture. KR has stated that it wants to standardize on one locomotive model for North Island services, being the Chinese built, but European engined, DXs which are far from being the most reliable if one observed a few months ago the number of them being out of service for electrical upgrades. A one model fits all does not make logical sense.

    To achieve their aim KR started with the answer being full “dieselfication” of the NIMT. So first they stopped full maintenance on the remaining 17 EF electric locomotives to a point that only 10 are available for wagon pulling at any one time now. As the number of EFs reduces then their share of the fixed overhead wiring becomes greater per each. So hence a self fulfilling end game.

    What they ought to have done, years before now, was to modernise the electric and electronic control systems dating back to the early 1980s. Instead they cannabilise parts from some locomotives to keep the others operating. A relatively inexpensive solution is to modernize the control system as the report from the three gentlemen suggests. Cost works out at cents per km the EF locomotives have travelled over the past 30 odd years, and will extend their service life spans for more than 20 years.

    Kiwi Rail is a SOE and has to be run on commercial lines, but it is also taxpayer owned and has a responsibility to these shareholders to act as good citizens. Adding to the carbon output is against the interests of taxpayers who will be footing the bill for it, and is against NZ’s stated intention of being carbon neutral by 2050. Added to the carbon dioxide pollution is the particulate matter being spread over dairy farms in the Waikato and more importantly the pristine National Park the NIMT traverses.

    It was incongruous for me to stand at National Park Station last April watching diesel smoke and fumes emanating from the train I was travelling on, plus the two freight pulling locomotives which arrived struggling up the incline shortly thereafter. Yet another nail in NZ’s 100% Pure image. But more importantly KiwiRail is ignoring the risks to its train drivers by having them continually exposed to carcinogenic matter for hours on end, whilst going through the confines of tunnels. Train drivers deserve better, much better and so do the NZ taxpayer owners of KiwiRail.